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The Hall of Fame Open in Newport, USA has always been for Indian tennis. Vijay Amritraj won the tournament three times, his elder brother Anand got the better of John McEnroe at the same event in 1977. Leander Paes won the crown here in 1998. Ten years later, in 2008, Prakash Amritraj reached the final. On Friday, at the Stadium Court, Ramkumar Ramanathan added his name to that illustrious list after beating former world no 25 Vasek Pospisil 7-5, 6-2 to enter the semi-final. The win makes him the first Indian to reach this stage of an ATP 250 since Somdev Devvarman accomplished the feat at the Chennai Open in 2009 (he went on to reach the final).
For Ramkumar though, the run has come at the right time. Back in April, the 23-year-old’s ATP ranking had jumped to a career high 115. He was well on his way to joining Yuki Bhambri in the top 100s, till a sudden dip in form. Since then, he’s won just 6 matches in his next 11 tournaments – he’s lost in the first round of his last four events, including the qualifiers of Wimbledon. And just when it his ranking had started to stagnate, the current world no 161 travelled to Newport for the second time, and managed to get the biggest result of his career.
“The thing about Ramkumar’s game is that he’s aggressive, sometimes too aggressive. But that works well for Newport,” says Anand Amritraj, former India Davis Cup captain. “The ball stays low after bouncing on the grass there. Ideal for someone who likes to come to the net, which is what Ramkumar does. You just have to get a connection, and the ball dies at the net.”
It isn’t just his volleying skills that the Chennai-lad has displayed at the event. Standing at 6-foot-2, Ramkumar has a big serve in his repertoire. In the three matches he’s played so far, his service has been broken only twice, both coming in his three-set win over Denis Kudla in the second round. Against the tall Canadian in the quarterfinal, Ramkumar faced two break points but saved both. Instead he managed to convert three chances on Pospisil’s serve. Ironically, he is also been guilty of committing 18 double faults over the course of the tournament.
Now in the semi-finals of an ATP tournament for the first time in his career, Ramkumar will compete for a spot in the final against 30-year-old American Tim Smyczek, another first timer at this stage of the tournament. The world no 123 got to the last four after a 6-4, 6-4 win over Taiwanese wild card Jason Jung.
In Smyczek though, Ramkumar will face an opponent he has a decent chance of beating. “I’ve seen Smyczek play, he relies a lot on his ground strokes and plays from the baseline,” says Amritraj. “Surely Ramkumar will make him come up to the net more often since he goes up to volly that often. But this will be a good chance for him to win. He’s had a favourable draw.” In his opening match, India’s second highest ranked player won in straight sets against 37-year-old qualifier from the Dominican Republic Victor Estrella Burgos. In the next round he played eight seed Kudla. Pospisil, who had beaten second seed Mischa Zverev in the second round, was by far the Indian’s biggest threat on paper.
Should he reach the final though, he’ll have a big opponent to compete against — either world no 26 Adrian Mannarino, or American Steve Johnson, ranked 48th. But Ramkumar does have the ability, especially on grass, to pull off an upset. At the Antalya Open last year, he stunned then world no 8 Dominic Thiem in straight sets. He later managed to win his first match in the main draw of a Masters, beating American Christopher Eubanks at Cincinnati.
He had made significant strides in 2017 and continued improving on his game, even gaining confidence in playing proper backhand drive. “I met his coach Emilio (Sanchez) at the US Open and he was saying the same thing,” recalls Amritraj. “Ramkumar has a decent two-handed backhand shot, but he’d only slice or convert it into a forehand. He’s worked on that now and started playing it a bit more.” For all the work and improvement though — which included a finalist finish at the $125,000 Taipei Challenger — he had started to stagnate. The first round loss last week, where he had been defending 48 points saw him drop 21 spots in the ranking chart. Reaching the semi-finals at Newport though will potentially take him to the 133rd spot. Now back on track, Ramkumar is on the verge of becoming the first Indian since Devvarman to reach an ATP final. And at a tournament that has historically been favourable to Indians, he has the chance of doing something great.
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